Skip to main content

Full text of "The Business of Poetry"

See other formats


Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in the World 

This article is one of nearly 500,000 scholarly works digitized and made freely available to everyone in 
the world by JSTOR. 

Known as the Early Journal Content, this set of works include research articles, news, letters, and other 
writings published in more than 200 of the oldest leading academic journals. The works date from the 
mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. 

We encourage people to read and share the Early Journal Content openly and to tell others that this 
resource exists. People may post this content online or redistribute in any way for non-commercial 

Read more about Early Journal Content at 
journal-content . 

JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people 
discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching 
platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit 
organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please 

POETRY: A Magazine of Verse 

Dr. Steinmetz, who still delights in Homer and Horace, 

does not believe in close specialization. Recently he said : 

Tell your young engineers to read poetry and history, and study 
the old-fashioned humanities. The trained specialist who is noth- 
ing but a specialist is only a tool in the hands of broader-minded 
men, who use him and pass him by. 

It is evident that the man of science is the romanticist of 
our age — the poet is a hard and cold seeker of truth in com- 
parison with the modern fire-bringer. Dr. Steinmetz' chal- 
lenge should prove suggestive — he raises interesting ques- 
tions as to the scope and function of art. If our poets are 
moved to reply, Poetry would like to continue the discus- 
sion. H. M. 


I am riding through Arizona in the Pullman. I am 
thinking of the business of poetry. Every other man attends 
to the details of business, if he is a good business man. A 
train is mostly business men. . . . 

Poets must, it seems to me, learn how to use a great many 
words before they can know how to use a few skilfully. 
Journalistic verbiage is not fluency. Alfred Kreymborg 
agrees with me that poets do not write prose often enough. 
I speak mostly of the poets who do not write with the sense 
of volume in their brevities. Brevity of all things demands 
intensity, or better say tensity. Tensity comes from experi- 
ence. The poet must see the space for the word, and then 
see to it the word occupies it. It is almost mechanical science 


The Business of Poetry 

these days, it would seem — the fitting of parts together so 
the whole produces a consistent continuity. Subjects never 
matter, excepting when they are too conspicuously auto- 
biographical. "Moi-meme, quand mime" is attractive 
enough, but there are so many attractive ways of presenting 
it. Personal handling counts for more than personal con- 
fessions. We can even learn to use hackneyed words, like 
"rose" and "lily", relieving them of Swinburnian encrusta- 
tions. We can relieve imagery from this banality. 

Poets cannot, as aspiring poets, depend, it seems to me, 
ever upon the possible natural "flow" that exists in them- 
selves. Poets have work to do for the precision of simplicity, 
and for the gift of volume in simplicity. It is the business 
of good poetry to show natural skill as well as natural im- 
petus. Some poets would like to say the former is more 
important. It surprises one a deal how much even thp bet- 
ter poets effuse, or rely upon their momentary theories. The 
subject calls for handling, not for enthusiams. Painters of 
this time have learned this; or ought to have learned it by 
now, with the excellent examples of the time. Personality 
is a state, it is not the consummate virtue. It begins, but 
it does not finish anything. We have eventually to insert in 
the middle spaces all we can of real ability. What is much 
needed is solidity, even of sentiment, combined with efficacy 
of form. This might be served as an injunction to some of 
the "girl" poets. Poets have not so much to invent them- 
selves as to create themselves, and creation is of course a 
process of development. 


POETRY: A Magazine of Verse 

We are to remember that Ingres, with his impeccable line, 
was otherwise almost nothing else but silhouette. We can- 
not subsist merely upon silhouette in poetry, nor upon the 
pantomimic gesture only. For every lightness there must 
be a conscious structure. Watteau was the genius of light- 
ness in gesture. No one will accuse him, or even his pupils, 
Lancret or Pater, of emptiness. A fan has structure by 
which it exists, a structure that calls for delicate artistry in 
mechanics. The aeroplane is propelled by motors weighing 
tons, made of solid metals; and is directed by a master me- 
chanic. Its own notion of lightness would never get it off 
the ground. Poetry will never "fly" on the notion of its 
mere lightness, for lightness is not triviality. Francis 
Thompson had a wing in his brain, but he had feet also. 
Those men were not mere personalities. They were master 
mechanics in the business of poetry. A bird could never rely 
upon the single strong feather. Poetry might rather well 
take up the mania of Flaubert, if only as a stimulus to ex- 
actitude of feeling and idea. You find the best poets doing 
all they can of that, or else intending that. 

The fierce or fiery spaciousness is the quality we look for 
in a real poem, and coupled with that the requisite iron work 
according to the personal tastes of the poet. The mere glid- 
ing of musical sequences is not sufficient. Poetry is not es- 
sentially or necessarily just vocalism. It may have plot or 
it may be plotless — that is for the poet to decide: what is 
wanted is some show of mechanistic precision such as the 
poet can devise. He must know his motive as well as him- 


The Business of Poetry 

self, and to invent the process of self-creation is no little 
task. That is the first principle to be learned by the versi- 
fiers. Poetry is not only a tool for the graving of the emo- 
tions; nor is it an ivory trinket. It calls for an arm. We 
need not be afraid of muscularity or even of "brutality." 

It is a refreshing omen that big poets write but little 
poetized autobiography. We find it so much in small poetry, 
poetry written behind moral arrasses, where the writer looks 
out upon a clear space with longing. Anyone would best set 
it aside, and get outside of himself and among the greater 
trivialities. Preoccupation, blocked introspection, are old- 
fashioned stimuli for modern poetry. Painting has become 
definitely masculine at last, in its substance, mechanistic in 
its purport. Delicacy and frankness are not necessarily 
feminine. Nor are strength and vigor necessarily muscular 
qualities. What Mr. Untermeyer pleases to call the "cult 
of brutality" does not apply to the poets he names, unless 
he regards all great poetry as delicate and "good." You may 
find the most infinite tenderness in Masters, in Wallace 
Gould, and in the others whom he names. He chooses to 
call picturing brutality. Brutality exists only in the prefer- 
ential attitude. No one finds Whitman brutal. One finds 
him presenting the picture. Yet the effect of Whitman on 
the "sick soul," as William James calls it, is essentially a 
brutal one. His simple frankness hurts. He removes the 
loin-cloth because it always hints at secrecy and cheap moral- 
ity. He undresses the body we are forever dressing. He 
thinks it handsomest so. He is right. It is a poor body that 


POETRY: A Magazine of Verse 

doesn't look best without clothes. Nature is naked, and, not 
to speak tritely, quite unashamed. It has no moralistic atti- 
tude. It has no attitude at all. It is therefore natural. 

Frost writes of New England, and the natives say they 
know nothing of that New England. The native who looks 
in from the outside with a world vision says, "How fa- 
miliar!" He doesn't say, "How cold, how forbidding!" 
Masters would probably not wish to live by his Spoon River, 
yet his later books are just other shades of the same powerful 
grey. Wallace Gould will not want to live by his "so dread- 
ful" Out of Season, in Children of the Sun; yet his books 
will probably always be tense and severe. Wallace Stevens 
thinks, or at least says, he isn't interested in producing a 
book at all. Well, that is superbly encouraging. It is not 
therefore what the poet thinks of, that is the "delicacy'' of 
his subject. He is looking for the mechanism by which to 
render "subject" with the precision called for by his feelings 
and attitudes toward it. 

I personally would call for more humor in poetry. If it 
is true with poetry as with the play, that almost anyone can 
write a drama or a tragedy, while the comedy man is rare, 
this would at least account for the lack of charming humor 
in verse. Satire is delectable, as Henry James has shown. 
Even the so serious-minded Emily Dickinson had her inimit- 
able gift of humor. She did the best kind of fooling with 
"God." An intellectual playfulness with great issues she 
certainly had to an irresistible degree. 

A quotation from someone, apropos of Rainer Maria Rilke, 


The Business of Poetry 

stating that "The poet, in order to depict life, must take no 
part in it," offers a fine truism. He is of necessity the looker- 
on. How else? He must see first and feel afterward, or 
perhaps not feel at all. Modern expression teaches that most 
noticeably. Real art comes from the brain, as we know, not 
from the soul. We have the excellent examples of this in 
Mary Garden and Mrs. Fiske— fine refutations of the atti- 
tude toward femininity. It is a geometric of self-invention 
art purposes to create. The poet, it seems, must learn this 
along with the other artists of the time. Art of the time is 
the art of the mechanism of the time. We must make poetry 
of today according to the theme of radio-telephony, and of 
commutation over oceans by the plane. We cannot feel as 
we do and attempt Keats' simplicities, or Keats' lyricism even. 
We have other virtues and defects. We are not melodists. 
Cacophonists, then? We do not concentrate on the assonant 
major alone. We find the entire range of dissonance valu- 
able as well as attractive. Or is it all a fierce or.ginal 
harmonic we are trying to achieve? 

There is no less need of organization even if we do not 
employ the established metre and rhyme. Likewise, if a poet 
must state his or her personal history, he or she may be asked 
to be as brief as possible. It is easier to read epigrams than 
to read the diary, no matter how short the latter may be. 
The age of confession perished with the Parnassians. We 
are a vastly other type of soul — if we are soul at all, which 
I keenly doubt. The poet's attitude then, for today, is 
toward the outside. This does not necessarily imply surface. 


POETRY: A Magazine of Verse 

We present ourselves in spite of ourselves. We are most 
original when we are most like life. Life is the natural 
thing. Interpretation is the factitious. Nature is always 
variable. To have an eye with brain in it — that is, or rather 
would be, the poetic millenium. We are not moonlit strum- 
mers now : we are gun-pointers and sky-climbers. 

Marsden Hartley 

California's laureate 

Out on "the Coast"' they are certainly loyal to their own 
artists. We commend the following item, taken from The 
Writer, to the attention of other states among the forty- 
eight starred on our flag : 

California has a State Poet Laureate, made such by legislative 
action recorded in Chapter 61, California Statutes of 1919, p. 1537, 
as follows: — 

Whereas, Ina Coolbrith, of San Francisco, California, has brought 
prominently to the attention of the world the glories and beauties of 
California's fruits and flowers, its climate, its scenery, its wealth and 
possibilities, through her many brilliant poems, and has contributed 
to the high standing of our literature, thereby winning the admira- 
tion and gratitude of all loyal Californians, and is truly deserving 
of our most favorable recognition and mention; therefore, be it 

Resolved, by the senate, the" assembly concurring, that Ina Cool- 
brith be hereby recognized, and given the honorary title of The 
Loved Laurel-crowned Poet of California. 

Miss Coolbrith was a friend of Bret Harte, and was as- 
sociated with him in the editorship of the Overland Monthly. 
Her first book of verse, A Perfect Day and Other Poems. 
was published in 1884; and The Singer of the Sea — Songs 
from the Golden Gate in 1895. When the writer made a